Is Kochi’s Watasale store the future of retail?

There are no long-winding queues or slow cashiers at Watasale. In fact, there is no cashier at all. At this fully-automated store recently launched by a Kochi-based startup at the city’s Gold Souk Grande Mall, customers get a hands-on experience of what cashier-less shopping feels like. This is the age of the automated retail store, which does away with needless human interaction.

While the concept was spearheaded by Amazon, which has its Amazon Go store in Seattle, the rest of the world is still waking up to the many possibilities of disruptive retail. American retail giant Walmart has announced a partnership with Microsoft to launch cashier-free stores.

The ‘just-walk-out’ technology, that the Watasale store is based on, is a first of its kind in India, claim the founders. Unlike in a brick-and-mortar shop, shopping is hassle-free. There is no need to scan the products, generate the bill, enter the card pin, or get the bill checked at the exit. It runs on a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), computer vision and sensor fusion, the same technology that is employed in self-driving cars.

Against the tide
  • Amazon started out as an online bookstore. Now, the company runs physical bookstores and the Amazon Go retail stores.

The store at the Gold Souk Grande is rather small, with two racks on either side, one for toiletries and the other for groceries. For the curious, this is how it works: prospective customers have to download the Watasale app from the Play store and enter the store by scanning the QR code at the entrance. Pick up the products, toss them into your bag and walk out; the money gets automatically deducted from the customer’s account through credit card or an integrated wallet.

“This is the future of shopping,” says Rajesh Malamal, the chief marketing officer of the company, “Though this is a pilot run, we are a live store. The footfalls are just picking up, but we want to give people the ultimate automated shopping experience.” Three years of research and multiple trial runs have gone into setting up the store. The technology and logistics were developed by an in-house team.

Is Kochi’s Watasale store the future of retail?

The experience is not starkly impersonal as one might imagine. Shop assistants have been appointed, who help customers get familiar with the way the technology works. “Anything from fresh produce to beverages, packed food and pharmaceuticals can be sold through this model. This can also be scaled up to a hypermarket, based on how well our people adapt to the technology,” says Richu Jose, the chief operating officer. Apart from the inquisitive shopper, it has also been attracting the tech geeks among students. “They are interested in AI and computer vision and want to experience it,” Richu says.

With technology such as computer vision, there could be concern about privacy. “Though we use computer vision, we don’t use facial recognition. Instead, we depend on multiple classifications based on AI and identify the customer based on the algorithm. The customer or their mobile phone is not tracked,” Richu adds. This way, the store can get a detailed insight into inventory, analyse buying patterns and update stocks instantly.

In terms of security, it is no different from an ordinary store, only safer, in that it cuts the risk of shoplifting.

Watasale micro stores are the next step in the plan. These ‘stores next door’ will be deployed in apartment complexes, housing areas, workplaces and transit areas. These work as upgraded vending machines, but on the same cashier-less principle, where the customer can scan the QR code and pick up what they need. These micro stores can be placed in any location, and the customers can use them at any time of the day for groceries, daily essentials, food items and the like.

Watasale is planning to expand to Bengaluru and Delhi, and the company also plans to open franchisee stores, and as a later step, include farmers by directly purchasing from them and delivering fresh produce to consumers.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 9:28:23 PM |

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